Mesa’s Catholic campuses practice ‘lockdown’ during area shooting

Benedictine University at Mesa is launching its first group of M.B.A. students and hosting info sessions in a variety of formats for future applicants. (J.D. Long-García/CATHOLIC SUN)
Benedictine University at Mesa was one of four Catholic campuses impacted by nearby shootings March 19. All of them imposed “level 1” lockdown procedures as a precaution. (CATHOLIC SUN file photo)

Mesa’s four Catholic campuses and university were in some proximity to Wednesday’s deadly shooting spree at a motel on Main Street, with all of them entering “lockdown” mode.

The time that each one required everyone on campus to remain in their current rooms, lock doors and entryways and continue business as usual, were more like a dress rehearsal for many of them. In essence they largely felt there wasn’t imminent danger, but entered “lockdown” mode as a precaution.

Lockdowns are intended to minimize the risk of violence and increase safety of all on campus by creating physical layers of separation between the community and a potential aggressor, said Elliott Peppers, associate director of media relations for Benedictine University in Mesa.

Benedictine students are on spring break this week, but both campus buildings were open during the time of the shootings. It was largely staff and faculty on site at the time.

As a precaution due to the proximity of the fluid situation, administrators issued a “BenAlert,” the campus’s emergency notification system via phone, text and/or email. The campus remained in “soft” lockdown mode for three hours meaning there was movement within the building — including to and from regular daily Mass at 12:30 p.m. — but no one could enter or leave the university.

“Our community has the opportunity to pray on an individual basis and as a community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the shooting victims and their families and loved ones,” Peppers said in an email.

Administrators lifted the lockdown at 1:40 p.m. following consultation with local authorities.

The campus, along with Queen of Peace School, sit roughly two-and-a-half miles from where the shooting began. Outside gates at diocesan campuses are always locked during school hours, so the only change at Queen of Peace was locking classroom doors too.

That was in effect for 45 minutes with the campus remaining “on alert” status after police told administrators the violence was headed away from Queen of Peace. Students had limited freedom of movement outside by remaining on a hidden part of the playground.

The school emailed parents and teachers every step of the way including an “all clear” alert.

“I always make sure the first sentence is, ‘Your kids are safe. Here is what we are doing,’” said principal Mona Griego.

The school received many return emails thanking school leaders for keeping them informed the entire time.

Griego commended the office staff, but was more impressed with schoolwide prayer the next morning. She recalled eighth-grader and student council co-president Abby Romero’s prayer for everyone affected by the shootings.

“She even prayed for God to intercede in this shooter’s life” and to make better decisions, Griego recalled.

Christ the King School is five miles east of where the violence began. Administrators heard from parents who are police officers that the threat of danger was headed west, but held an informal “lockdown” anyway. It served as a practice following a lockdown refresher training for staff held three weeks ago.

“It was a good example for all of us to imagine what our classrooms would look like,” said principal Shelley Conner noting that Christ the King is “on it” when it comes to taking children’s safety seriously.

Email and emergency alerts went to parents via Twitter and staff took calls from as far away as Florida and Illinois inquiring about the situation. Local police said the school was never in any danger and texted them with an “all clear” notice.

“We were pretty well taken care of and kept up to date of what was going on,” Conner said.

St. Timothy School is less than four miles from the first shooting scene. All Catholic schools hold lockdown drills throughout the year, but this was the first test run for Mesa students.

Principal Maureen Vick voluntarily called a “level 1” lockdown at 10:15 a.m. and lifted it at 12:35 p.m. She notified the pastor and diocesan Catholic Schools Office. School families received an email plus a text and voice notice through its SchoolReach instant alert system at the onset and when the lockdown was lifted.

“When I walked around campus, I just assured the students there is a police matter going on north of us and for our safety we are in Lockdown 1,” Vick said. “Teachers and I reviewed with the class what that means, but as we practice drills, students were comfortable and secure with our procedures.”